Climate change already impacts the Northern Great Plains in major ways, a University of Nebraska researcher says.
Michael Hayes, with the university’s School of Natural Resources, gave that outlook during Tuesday’s webinar for media and officials in the central United States. The conference call is conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“The Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in modern civilization. The changes are primarily the result of human actions,” he said. “The impacts of climate change are already being felt across the country, but Americans are responding.”
However, the overall global response doesn’t approach the scale needed, he added.
Hayes and Nebraska state climatologist Martha Shulski are among U.S. researchers providing data and projections on climate change. For the study, South Dakota and Nebraska are classified as the Northern Great Plains. Iowa and Minnesota are classified as part of the Midwest.
The Northern Great Plains’ dramatic elevation changes across the region produce a high amount of variety in geography, environment and climate, Hayes said.
“The impact of climate change through the Northern Great Plains includes changes in flooding and drought, rising temperatures and the spread of invasive species,” he added.
During Tuesday’s conference call, Hayes pointed to major areas affected by climate change: water, agriculture, recreation and tourism, energy and indigenous communities.
A safe, adequate water supply is particularly important to the Northern Great Plains.
“Water is the lifeblood, and effective management is critical,” he said. “Small changes can have big impacts, making management a challenge. Future changes are very likely to (accelerate) these challenges.”
Reservoir and groundwater storage are expected to become increasingly important, Hayes said. Those sources will provide a buffer against the impact of increasing fluctuations of water resources, he said.
The reservoirs and groundwater storage can help meet water demands during periods of shortages, Hayes said. He pointed to losses in snowpack water and the higher rates of evaporation from soil and plants.
In addition to affecting the water supply, climate change will play a huge role in shaping agriculture, Hayes said.
“Rising temperatures and changes in extreme weather events are very likely to have negative impacts on parts of the region,” Hayes said.
In response, producers will likely need to adapt the management of their operations, including shifts in agricultural practices and enterprises, he advised.
The northern Great Plains produces a major share of the United States food supply, Hayes said.
In terms of poultry and livestock, the region produces 22 percent of the nation’s beef cows, 7 percent of the hogs and pigs, 18 percent of the sheep and lambs, 2 percent of the milk cows and about 4 percent of the egg layers.
In terms of crops, the region produces 20 percent of the nation’s corn, about 12 percent of the corn for silage/greenchop, 30 percent of the wheat for grain, 70 percent of the spring wheat, 72 percent of the durum wheat and 20 percent of the oats for grain.
Climate change will result in warmer, generally wetter conditions and elevated carbon dioxide levels. The outcome will include greater soil water availability in the north and less in the south. It also brings an increase in extreme high temperatures during pollination and grain fill periods, reducing crop yields.
Other impacts include an increased abundance of weeds and invasive species and a range of crop pests. In addition, the impacts include an earlier onset of spring and a decreased quality of forage.
The Nebraska State Climate Office has released the projected effects of Nebraska’s changing climate, Hayes said. He outlined the following causes and effects:
• A longer growing season leads to more evaporative demand.
• Warmer summers lead to increased water requirements.
• More extreme hot days lead to crop and livestock stress.
• A wetter spring leads to decreased days for field work.
• More extreme rain events lean to increased runoff and soil erosion.
• Higher cooling degree days lead to shifting energy demands.
• More frequent large hail leads to increased damage potential.
Climate change’s economic impact isn’t limited to agriculture, Hayes said. He pointed to the possible negative effect for recreation and tourism.
“Impacts are already evident for local economies that depend on winter or river-based recreational activities,” he said.
Climate-based changes in agricultural production can produce a domino effect for wetlands, native species and recreation, Hayes said. He noted that climate change has resulted in reductions of grassland areas in the prairie pothole region of the Northern Great Plains.
“A substantial portion of the prairie pothole region was converted from grassland to corn/soy between 2006 and 2011,” he said.
Federal, tribal, state and private organizations are undertaking preparedness and adaptation activities, he added.
In another area, climate change impacts different forms of energy, Hayes said.
“The fossil fuel and renewable energy production and distribution infrastructure is expanding,” he said. “Climate change puts this infrastructure and supply of energy at risk. The energy sector is also a significant source of gases that contribute to climate change and ground-level ozone pollution.”
Climate change can also impact cultural changes, particularly for indigenous peoples such as American Indians, Hayes said.
“Indigenous peoples are at high risk from a variety of climate change impacts,” he said. “These changes are already resulting in harmful impacts to tribal economies, livelihoods and sacred waters and plants used for ceremonies, medicine and subsistence. Many tribes have been very proactive in adaptation and strategic climate change planning.”
During his presentation, Hayes gave projections on the impact of climate change for the Northern Great Plains in terms of temperature and precipitation. By the end of the century, the winter and spring months could be wetter, while the summer and fall months won’t see such dramatic changes.
When it comes to climate change, now is the time for action, Hayes said. Human activity, which creates much of the climate change, can also help find answers.
“It’s already here. We’re the cause, but we’re also the solution,” he said. “The sooner we act, the less risky it is. There are great examples to follow.”
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